Nietzchka Keene’s adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale is a haunting black-and-white showcase for Björk.
As Grimm’s fairy tales go, “The Juniper Tree” is an often overlooked gem. The folktale’s story (a stepmother murders her stepson, only for him to return as a bird to seek revenge) can’t be Disneyfied, and as such it’s only popular among fairy tale fans. Similarly, Nietzchka Keene’s 1990 adaptation of the story (currently enjoying a 4k restoration and a 35mm presentation in arthouse theaters like Chicago’s own Music Box) was well received by critics but lacked commercial appeal.
As such, the movie’s only lasting contribution to the general public is it being an answer to the trivia question “In what movie did Björk make her acting debut?”. It’s a shame because both The Juniper Tree and its source material deserve to be more widely known and appreciated; hopefully, the film’s re-release will help accomplish this goal.
The Juniper Tree’s plot keeps the original’s folksy simplicity: in medieval Iceland, two sisters escape their village after their mother (Guðrún Gísladóttir) is killed for witchcraft. The younger sister, Margit (Björk, Dancer In The Dark), can see visions that no one else can see, while the older sister, Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir), uses rituals and talismans to get her desires fulfilled.
During their travels, Katla meets and seduces the widowed peasant, Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring), who agrees to marry her. Jóhann’s son, Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar), quickly befriends Margit but despises Katla. As tensions rise between the newly formed family, Jónas’ hatred for his stepmother escalates until it reaches a tragic conclusion.
Perhaps the biggest change the movie makes to the original folktale is its addition of ambiguity and nuance to the narrative. The Brothers Grimm were known for many things, but nuance was not one of them. Characters were either truly good or purely wicked, magic is unmistakable, and everyone always gets what they deserve. Keene forgoes this simplicity by making the stepmother, if not good, then understandable. Katla does not despise Jónas from the start, as she tries to befriend him, but his refusal to accept her as his stepmother turns her against him. Adding to the tension is her tempestuous relationship with Jóhann, who seems to desire her one moment, and hate her the next.
There is even ambiguity towards Katla’s role in Jónas’ death, which is framed as more an accident, although the situation occurs due to Katla goading the boy. While the film doesn’t excuse Katla’s more heinous actions after the boy dies, the audience can’t help but hold sympathy for her. She isn’t evil, just a desperate woman forced into marriage due to extreme circumstances.
Both The Juniper Tree and its source material deserve to be more widely known and appreciated.
The magic in The Juniper Tree is also kept ambiguous, with it never being clear if the fantastical elements are real, or just figments of the characters’ imagination. Throughout the narrative, Margit is haunted by visions of her dead mother and the encounters gain in intensity. At first, Margit just sees her mother sitting or standing, but eventually, her mother leads her to strange places, showing the girl a hole in her chest that causes Margit to black out when she places her hand in it.
However, while Katla knows about and encourages Margit’s visions, the other characters don’t share them, making it possible that they are just hallucinations. Similarly, while it’s possible that Katlas has bewitched Jóhann into loving her, and requires witchcraft to keep him interested, it’s also just as likely that he’s just a young widower who doesn’t love his wife, but lusts after her and needs a partner to survive in such a harsh setting.
One would expect a cast full of Icelandic actors who are early in their career and speaking lines in English to feel stilted and awkward, but the cast uniformly gives good performances. Unsurprisingly, Björk is the breakout star in the film. She portrays Margit with a melancholy naivety that makes her feel vulnerable and much younger than the 21-year-old she was at the time of filming.
Her most affecting scene coming near the middle of the film, after she witnesses a fight between Katlan and Jóna. Margit goes to a beach where she once saw a vision of her mother. Facing a rocky cliff where her mother once sat, she begs her mother’s absence to “take me with you” before crumpling onto the sand. It’s a short scene, but heartbreaking.
The rest of the cast does a great job as well. Bragadóttir expertly portrays Katla’s transformation from kind and gentle to a woman who becomes hardened out of necessity, and Flygenring does a great job portraying a man with a conflicted relationship with his wife. While Þormar has a few odd line deliveries, his facial expression and body language still make his performance feel natural, and it’s a shame this is his only film credit.
Keene’s decision to shoot in black and white is inspired, the monochrome cinematography enhancing the dreamlike quality of the film without making it feel like a full-out fantasy flick. The visuals also work well in black and white, with scenes of Jónas hanging a wreath on his mother’s grave and Margit’s mother standing Madonna-like on a rocky ledge feeling particularly powerful. Perhaps the greatest testament to Randy Sellar’s ability as a cinematographer is that the shots of rainbows and aurora borealis still look natural and gorgeous without color.
While The Juniper Tree has beautiful visuals and engaging performances, your enjoyment of the film will be determined if you can stand a film with low action. The film is an hour of build up to a terrible event, with the aftermath only taking place in a little under 15 minutes. As such, the film is mostly devoted to intrafamilial conflict and Margit’s strange visions and lacks the drama usually found in fairy tale adaptations. There is definitely an audience for this sort of film, and they will love The Juniper Tree, but anyone not part of that group will most likely feel that the 78-minute runtime is still too long.
Will this rerelease of The Juniper Tree boost the moviegoing public’s awareness of this overlooked movie? I doubt it, as its arthouse run will only attract nerdy cinephiles and diehard Björk fans, but that doesn’t bother me. This is a film that deserves to be seen, but it’s not a film for everyone. What this rerelease does, though, is give its intended audience a chance to see it in theaters for the first time in almost thirty years. That’s good enough for me.
The Juniper Tree is enjoying a 35mm presentation at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, premiering July 12. Get tickets here.